The Howard League for Penal Reform

Let’s have a Women’s Board, not a Women’s Justice Board

There has been talk in recent years of the idea of having a ‘Women’s Justice Board’ along the lines of the Youth Justice Board. It has been floated by Sadiq Khan of Labour and this suggestion again came to the fore in a policy announcement from the Liberal Democrats a couple of weeks ago.

At first sight it looks sensible, but as with many superficially enticing ideas, it could have deleterious unintended consequences. Our concern is that it should not be based in the justice system but should be a ‘Women’s Board’ that looks more broadly at the particular needs of vulnerable women who are at risk of coming into conflict with the law.

It is clear that in all areas, but perhaps most starkly in the justice system,  equality of treatment does not mean equality of outcome and that the different needs and circumstances of women must be recognised and acted upon.

A Women’s Board which includes, but is not limited to justice policy, could have an important role in reducing the number of women involved in the justice system. However, it is crucial that any new body is truly cross-departmental and does not have the net-widening effect that new justice-led organisations so often have.

Due to the fantastic successes in reducing the number of children involved in the criminal justice system in recent years it is natural to look to the youth justice sector for inspiration. However, whilst there are lessons to take from the Youth Justice Board, a similar body for women is not the right approach to take. It must be remembered the number of children in prison exploded following the creation of the Youth Justice Board and has still not fallen to pre-2000 levels. In addition, the primary function of the Youth Justice Board is placing children in custody and a specialist body to do this for women is not needed.

Much of the success in reducing the number of children in prison is the result of major changes in the policing of children and a concerted effort by all police forces to reduce child arrests. This is what must be replicated for women. Several police forces are beginning to take steps to change the response to women involved in low level criminal activity. There is a growing awareness amongst police officers that many women who come into the contact with the criminal justice system are victims themselves and are often pressured into the commission of low level offences by violent partners and addictions. Change in the way women are policed is essential if we are to see a substantial drop in the numbers of women in prison.

Furthermore, the debate around women in the justice system is shifting towards a focus on helping women at risk and preventing unnecessary criminalisation. There is a developing consensus that reducing the number of women in the justice system is in a large part reliant on changing services for and attitudes towards women in difficulty. It is by creating a Women’s Board to build upon this agenda that success can be achieved.

A Women’s Board ought to bring together all those departments most closely linked to women at risk, not only of involvement in the justice system, but also of domestic violence, homelessness, drug addiction and mental ill health. A Women’s Board ought to look across government output as a whole and develop a coherent approach to helping women at risk and preventing harm.

The Ministry of Justice ought to play a part in the development of such a board, but should not lead it. Creating a new Ministry of Justice body to reduce the number of women in the justice system simply will not work. Instead, the Women’s Board ought to be led at a senior, ideally ministerial, level by the Department for Communities and Local Government or the Government Equalities Office. The Department for Health and the Home Office should also play a major role.

This body could be successful in reducing the number of women in the justice system if it brings together all the departments and agencies which can have an impact on the problems and disadvantages that lead women into the justice system in the first place. A Women’s Board, rather than a Women’s Justice Board, would be a huge step towards achieving the aim of seeing far fewer women in the criminal justice system.

March 12, 2015 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Uncategorized

Close Feltham prison

I have just talked to a young man who was recently released from Feltham. He told me about his time there.

He was on the basic level of the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme (IEP) which meant that he was locked in his cell pretty much all the time, allowed out only for a few minutes each day. He had no television or radio. When I asked what he did all day, he replied that the only thing to do was sleep. He said that he got no exercise for two months, partly because the building had flooded. He said as a consequence the communal showers and toilets were stinking with excrement that had floated up with the flooding water.

Teenagers on the basic level are permitted to have two showers a week, on Saturday and Wednesday. The rest of the time they are living in their own sweat.

The boys have to wear prison uniform and are given a change of clothes, including underwear and socks, twice a week. The clothing comprises jogging bottoms and sweatshirts that have been worn by hundreds of boys and are shoddy and misshapen.

They are given a ‘breakfast pack’ comprising cereal, tea and milk. At lunch they get a baguette. They are given a hot meal at about 5pm. The boys are constantly hungry. Those on the basic level are not permitted to use any private money their families send in to buy extra food.

This young man was put on the basic regime and told that he had to behave for two weeks before he could be considered for a reprieve and allowed to have a few extra privileges. The problem was that no one explained what ‘behave’ meant. He was given no advice and no help to ‘behave’. He was merely locked in a cell alone and ignored.

Perhaps the most frightening part of his testimony was that he said that he preferred to be in Isis prison, because although it was a much rougher and more violent prison, because it was run by the inmates, at least it was more consistent. If you get out of line, you get stabbed.

Today the Independent Monitoring Board published its annual report on Feltham, which draws a picture of an institution in crisis. I am not going to rehash the details which are available for all to read, except to say that this really matters. These young people are being failed today. They have been failed for years.

Pouring good money and lives after bad is not working. It should be closed down, and fast.

March 11, 2015 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Uncategorized

The Liberal Democrats, penal reform and the general election

On Monday morning, the Liberal Democrats set out the party’s criminal justice policies. I was not there in person, as it clashed with a ministerial board on deaths in custody – a subject which is pressing at a time when more prisoners are taking their own lives behind bars. In advance of the speech, the Independent on Sunday did ask my views on one of the Liberal Democrat proposals: the establishment of a Women’s Justice Board. I was not keen, for reasons I will explain below. But there were things to welcome in the policy platform outlined at the event, not least the admission that rising prison numbers are a sign of failure and not success.

Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes were clear that the overuse of prison makes us less safe. They were clear that those sentenced to prison for a first offence are much more likely to reoffend than those who are not. They were also clear that huge numbers of those in prison suffer from mental illness and need help not punishment. These are welcome statements we all too seldom hear from leading politicians.

It was also heartening to learn that Nick Clegg highlighted the way in which criminal justice policy often seems to ignore evidence in a way that would never be tolerated in any other arena of government. The evidence is clear, we have far too many people in prison and it isn’t doing us any good.

Alongside these statements, there were a number of other proposals, including the expansion of liaison and diversion schemes, the greater use of restorative justice and preventing children in care being drawn into the justice system over issues which would usually be dealt with informally by parents or guardians.

As I have said, I was less enthusiastic about the proposal to create a new Justice Board for women. I fear the creation of another quango within the criminal justice system is not the answer. Advocates of the Youth Justice Board forget that over its first few years, the YJB saw an explosion in the number of children sucked into the criminal justice system and ending up in custody. Even with the welcome drop in recent years, there are still more children behind bars than in the days prior to the YJB. I would not want to see the same thing happen with women.

The Liberal Democrats also proposed bringing young adults within the aegis of the YJB. The Howard League is keen to see more specialised support for young adults in the criminal justice system, but we are concerned that diluting the special protections that children should be accorded under the law would worsen their plight and not address the needs of young adults.

A Women’s Justice Board, and the expansion of the YJB remit to cover young adults, are two policies announced by Nick Clegg which are broadly mirrored by proposals from the Labour party. If these two political parties find themselves in coalition negotiations, then these are shared policy planks which might swiftly become a reality. It is therefore all the more important that some hard thinking is done before new structures are put in place that could have the opposite effect than that intended.

The Howard League stands ready to help whichever political party, or parties, forms the next government. If prison numbers are to be reduced, then radical rethinking of the penal system is required.

February 25, 2015 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Uncategorized

Private prison staffing

There are some interesting anomalies in staffing levels between the public and private-sector prisons.

Whilst in the public sector the number of prison staff has been slashed to dangerous levels, a Parliamentary Question tabled by Julian Huppert MP elicited the fact that some of the private jails had increased their staffing levels last year.

I think this might be because under the contracts with the private jails they get extra money for overcrowding, or, possibly because they just have more freedom within their budgets to recruit when necessary. Either way, we will never know for sure because so much of the financial information about the private prisons is kept secret.

Of the Serco prisons (Doncaster, Dovegate, Lowdham Grange, Thameside, Ashfield) only Lowdham Grange increased its staffing levels and only by fewer than ten people.

Of the Sodexo prisons (Peterborough, Forest Bank, Bronzefield and Northumberland) only Peterborough increased its staffing by up to 30 more, whereas troubled Northumberland prison reduced its staff by up to 20.

Interestingly, it is the G4S prisons where the increases are consistent. Altcourse went from 250 to 270, Birmingham from 280 to 310, Oakwood from 260 to 270, Rye Hill from 120 to 140 and Parc from 280 to 300.

These figures are rounded to the nearest ten and cover the period March 2014 to June 2014.

It is possible that G4S felt its reputation was in tatters with the terrible reports on Oakwood and that it had to take action to ameliorate conditions in its prisons.

This contrasts with the cuts forced on public-sector prisons which the Howard League has highlighted repeatedly and has resulted in a significant deterioration in conditions and regime.

Public-sector prisons were subjected to a benchmarking exercise that compared them to private jails and required the staff cuts. Of course, cuts of 40 per cent plunged the prisons into an abyss of violence, self-harm and inactivity, and morale hit rock bottom. A knee-jerk reversal was quickly ordered by panicked Ministers who loudly proclaimed that they are hiring 1,700 extra staff.

So it seems that both the public and private prisons are, finally, starting to realise the prisons required sufficient staff. I think they also require staff to be appropriately remunerated, well managed, educated and trained. But that may be asking too much.

February 19, 2015 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Posted in: Government policy, Inside prisons, Prison officers, Prisons, Privatisation, Self-injuring, Work in prisons

Solitary confinement

Imagine spending 22 hours a day locked in a room. You might be allowed to make a phone call. A half-hour break to exercise. A shower if you are lucky.

Imagine having to endure this ordeal day after day after day without knowing when it will end.

Now imagine how you would feel if no one knew it was happening to you and you felt powerless to do anything about it.

Welcome to the unreported world of solitary confinement in prisons in England and Wales.

It is a world which the Supreme Court will be asked to explore in a two-day hearing, starting today. The Howard League for Penal Reform is intervening in this case as it raises important issues of public interest.

Segregation – the practice of separating prisoners from other prisoners – is a common feature of the prison system. Not all prisons have designated segregation units but most do, and they are used for various reasons.

Prisoners might be segregated for ‘good order and discipline’ or while they are waiting to be tried under the prison’s discipline rules.   The reason may be to prevent prisoners from harming others or an attempt to protect them. But such a drastic measure can have grave consequences, as the court will hear.

In the Howard League’s experience, it is not unusual for prisoners who are segregated to experience levels of isolation that are equivalent to solitary confinement. The Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment has made the connection explicit by stating that “solitary confinement is also known as ‘segregation’.”

In its report in 2013-14, Whitemoor prison’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) did not hesitate in using the term ‘solitary confinement’ to describe the segregation regime.

“(W)e routinely observe prisoners held in segregation,” the board wrote, “including the one held for the entire period under review and more – and who attempted suicide.

“We adhere to the use of the term solitary confinement, by which we mean being held alone in a cell for 23 hours a day – often without a TV or working radio, and with no meaningful occupation – interspersed with only very occasional contacts with prison officers, usually through a closed door.”

Other IMB reports make similar observations. It is widely accepted that prisoners in England and Wales are being held in solitary confinement. But we do not know how many.

As far as we are aware, the number of prisoners subject to segregation is not publicly available. Parliamentary Questions have been asked, concerning the number of people segregated and how many of these people have protected characteristics, but the Government has confirmed that this information is not collated centrally.  What we do know is that the prevalence of segregation and the length of time men, women and even children spend in isolation varies markedly across the prison estate.

A number of prisons, both open and closed, including North Sea Camp, Spring Hill, Blantyre House, Send, Askham Grange and Hatfield, manage without a designated segregation unit at all. In contrast, HM Inspectorate of Prison reports have highlighted jails where the use of segregation seemed continually and excessively high.

The length of time that people have been segregated ranges from a number of hours to more than five years.

What we do know about solitary confinement paints a worrying picture.

In its annual report for 2013-14, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman drew attention to the “disproportionately high number of self-inflicted deaths in segregation units”.

In the same year, HM Inspectorate of Prisons reported that there had been seven deaths in segregation.

One of the men who died had self-harmed on the very day he was placed in segregation, but his case was not reviewed and no exceptional measures were put in place. He was found hanging in his cell after only two days in the unit.

The Howard League’s experience of working with prisoners subjected to long-term segregation is that they often tend to be the most disturbed and vulnerable, characterised by being young, institutionalised, with mental health difficulties and histories of self-harm and attempted suicide.

The charity has worked with a number of young people who have been segregated for long periods pending a transfer to hospital under the Mental Health Act or who have self-harmed prolifically while detained for many months in isolation.  There is no clear route for prisoners to challenge their segregation and no independent scrutiny of it.

Our experience is that segregating vulnerable and disturbed people tends to make their problems worse.  The most vulnerable are the least equipped to challenge their segregation without help or a fair system in place. The risks of putting people in solitary confinement are clear, but the safeguards are inadequate.

The Howard League is presenting expert evidence to the Supreme Court today based on our many years of experience in working in prisons, conducting research and representing young people in custody.

February 16, 2015 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Posted in: Human rights, Inside prisons, Mental health, Prisons, Self-injuring, suicide

Child jails are in a bad way

We published a report by the independent Commission on Sex in Prison today that raised the spectre of prison creating more sex offenders. Locking up young boys in violent macho jails at the most formative time in their lives could be storing up problems for the future.

Child jails are in a bad way. I am getting evidence every day of problems at Feltham. Our lawyers have witnessed fights in the visiting hall recently. The most worrying aspect of this was that the boys seemed to think that fights taking place in the visits hall was perfectly normal and happened all the time.

Boys have called the Howard League helpline asking for help because they have been subjected to what they perceive as homophobia from staff.

In what is becoming an increasingly typical plea for help, a boy recently told us that had been contained in his cell for weeks with no association with any other child, let out for only 30 minutes every other day to have a shower, permitted no exercise or education or activities. He has now been in isolation for almost six weeks.

Other boys are punished by having their televisions taken away, but if they are sharing a cell that means the boy who has done nothing wrong also has no TV. As boys are locked in their cells for most of the day and night, with nothing to do, a television can be a lifeline.

Prison workers and boys alike are concerned at the lack of activity caused by having too few staff and too few experienced and well-trained staff.

What happens inside jails does not stay inside jails. Staff having to cope with aggression and being fearful of the possibility of being assaulted take their fear and stress home with them. Boys having experienced violence, bullying and being caged for days on end take their anger and resentment home with them. We all suffer the consequences of a policy that damages children.

February 10, 2015 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Children and young people, Inside prisons, Prisons

Probation changes are a big mess

Yesterday our excellent, award-winning probation service was handed over to a handful of private companies. I’m surprised that the Ministry of Justice tried to draw such a lot of attention to this fact as the whole programme is in a big muddle.

To remind those that haven’t followed the Transforming Rehabilitation programme closely the most significant changes are:

  • The probation service has been split in two. The National Probation Service (NPS – still a public service) and 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs – that, as of yesterday, are privately owned).
  • Anyone the courts think should get a short prison sentence will now get an additional sentence of one year under the supervision of one of these companies.
  • The NPS will manage people convicted of more serious crimes.

The Howard League has major reservations about these changes. You can read more detailed information about our opposition here.

But focusing on today, it is clear that the system is in a big muddle and many questions have not been answered. Here are just some of the problems.

The Ministry of Justice has got its numbers wrong. Its press release states that “45,000 people sentenced to short sentences will now receive at least 12 months supervision in the community”. But last year over 58,000 people were handed short sentences by the courts. What is happening to the other 13,000? Has the whole system been organised on the basis of the wrong number of people?

Also, where is all the money coming from? The Justice Secretary was clear from the beginning that no extra money will be spent on this programme, everything will come from the existing probation budget. Even if you believe that payment by results will reduce costs in the long-term, (and I don’t) it’s obvious that setting up such a complex programme and providing services to thousands more people is expensive. I’m worried that money that would otherwise go to the NPS to work with the most dangerous people in society is being spent to set up and fund all these new companies. The Ministry of Justice has not answered this.

How will the probation staff based in the courts work?  As far as I can tell officers from the NPS will be expected to write reports and recommend sentences for people they have never met and whose sentence will be delivered by one of the CRCs. What’s more, the probation officers will not have a clue what services the CRCs will be providing and whether or not they are any good.

I imagine that the magistrates courts are in disarray today. Adding an extra 12 months’ supervision in the community to a short prison sentence changes it enormously. It becomes a much more serious and onerous sentence overnight, raising issues of proportionality. I know many magistrates are concerned that they haven’t received any training. They also know very little about the private companies now tasked with delivering the sentences they hand down.

Anyone not complying with the year-long supervision could be sent back to prison and the Ministry of Justice has said this could mean 22,000 people every year requiring 900 more prison places. There appears to be no budget for this.

Some people are going to benefit. Sodexo got contracts to run around a third of the supervision and when it all goes wrong they run prisons in their contract areas.

It’s all such a big mess and it really didn’t need to be. Almost everybody involved in probation work warned the Ministry of Justice against these changes and, when it became clear that the Ministry would not budge, it was begged to slow down so not to put the public at risk.

February 2, 2015 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Posted in: Privatisation, Probation, Rehabilitation, Uncategorized

Suicide in prison and the government’s response

You might have noticed that public ministerial responses to Howard League research and publications have been less than measured recently. Sometimes, it has to be said, ministerial pronouncements have verged on the bizarre and erroneous. We have tried not to respond in kind and we have let pass some of the more emotional outbursts. However, comments from ministers today concerning the deaths of people in prison are a step too far.

Eighty-two men and women, some as young as 18, took their own lives in prison last year and that is more people dying by their own hand than in the previous year – a year which itself saw a sharp increase on the years before it. Arguably once the state takes away your freedom it should care for you properly. You no longer have the freedom to choose how you deal with stress, depression, anxiety, bullying or a tragic event. You cannot go for a walk, and often cannot even cry because you are seen as weak and therefore a target. I will never forget the mother of an 18-year-old who hanged himself in Leeds prison telling me that she knew her boy had problems but at least she thought he would be safe when he went to prison.

It is not good enough for prison ministers to say that the Howard League is using misleading figures. Our figures come from the ministry. I sit on the ministerial board that oversees government strategy for preventing deaths in all forms of custody. The charity only uses official statistics.

It is not good enough for prison ministers to claim that we are using suicide statistics for our own campaigning purposes. Of course we are campaigning to end deaths in custody, it would be strange if we didn’t. It is downright insulting for a prison minister who has only been in post for a few months to allege that the Howard League, founded 150 years ago exactly to prevent deaths in custody, is not committed to achieving this. And, I take it personally. My step father hanged himself in Bedford prison. I saw the distress it caused my mother, for years after. I know about what it means when a family member dies in custody. I will do anything, anything I can to prevent that happening to anyone else.

It is time that ministers acted in a more mature and appropriate way. I want to hear a commitment to end deaths in custody. I don’t want to hear unbecoming complaints when a charity criticises their policies because people are dying.

January 22, 2015 · Frances Crook · 3 Comments
Posted in: Campaigns, Howard League, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prisons, Self-injuring, suicide

Children in solitary confinement in Feltham prison

The chief inspector of prisons today (13 January) published an inspection report on Feltham prison which made some devastating criticisms of the way children are treated.

The Howard League legal team has a lot of contact with young people imprisoned in Feltham though our legal helpline.  Our lawyers regularly visit young people in the establishment.

On several occasions our lawyers have come away with a strong sense of the anxiety felt within the establishment, with young people and staff looking over their shoulders waiting for something violent to happen. The sense of violence is palpable.

A child, whom I shall call Peter (not his real name) who has been in Feltham for almost a year recently told one of our lawyers that he has been subject to a restricted regime for the majority of time, he has been banged up (alone in his cell) for 23.5 hours a day. He has nothing to do in his cell: he struggles to read and only has a radio. He has only been allowed to attend education for one day in his whole time there. He feels unable to manage his emotions and finds being banged up all day just makes these difficulties even harder.  Even though our lawyers have been in contact with Peter for some time about other issues, it was only very recently that he revealed that he has been living like this for so long.  Presumably he felt there was nothing that anybody could do about it.

Our lawyers regularly come into contact with children and young adults who have been isolated, either in the segregation unit or on the wings for significant periods of time.

Last November we alerted the local children’s safeguarding board to our concerns following an increasing number of children in conditions of isolation. We have had no response.

The inspector’s report found:

  • Most boys had limited time unlocked, but for a significant minority (26%) it could be an hour a day (some as little as 30 minutes) and this amounted to solitary confinement. Most boys spent about 7 hours out of their cell on weekdays.
  • Attendances at activities was too low and absences often occurred for unjustified reasons.
  • The number of fights and assaults had reduced since the last inspection but violence was still higher than elsewhere. There had been 262 fights and assaults in the six months before the inspection compared with over 300 over the same period in 2013. This included 79 assaults on staff.
  • A significant amount of the conflict was gang-related. 26% of the children were being managed at the time of the inspection were either on restricted regimes or ‘keep apart’ lists. 48 gangs were represented in Feltham A at the time of the inspection.
  • Use of force had increased dramatically – the rate over the previous six months was 79% higher than the same period at the last inspection.
  • The number of adjudications had risen very sharply to an average of 126 a month, most arising from acts or threats of violence. Inspectors note that “this heavy use of formal disciplinary procedures, designed for use with adults, added to the proliferation of institutional responses to poor behaviour”.
  • The number of self-harm incidents had reduced, but the management of these cases was just adequate, and too many boys in crisis were left locked up for too long with not enough to do.
  • Apart from on Curlew unit, all boys were locked in their cells for meals, despite the fact that many boys had requested to dine out and there were communal dining tables on the units and outside.
  • Staff were praised as ‘a staff group who were working very hard to deal with a significant number of very troubled young people. For the most part they seemed to be doing this in a calm, patient and sometimes courageous way’. Staff shortages and aspects of the restricted regime reduced contact time, but inspectors observed a generally good group of staff doing their best.

It’s complicated.  It is clear from the contact the legal team has with the prison that many staff and young people alike feel unsafe.  Our team comes across staff who clearly do care about the children and try their best in a very difficult situation but the sheer size of the institution, the huge number of boys, poor facilities and lack of staff means that Feltham hasn’t worked properly for 30 years.

January 13, 2015 · Frances Crook · 3 Comments
Posted in: Children and young people, Government policy, Inside prisons, Prison officers, Prisons

Rude and aggressive policing

I had an altercation with a police officer on Saturday. It wasn’t much, nothing really to make a fuss about, but, it was the first interaction with a police officer I have had in more than a decade (as a citizen, obviously I deal with police all the time professionally). And it did not go well.

I was in my local pub with my friends. One is a military historian of some repute, another an accountant, one works in publishing and another runs a small gardening business. It was not a busy night and my local pub has a mixed clientele with a few older regulars who sit quietly at the bar most nights.

I suddenly noticed a man, quite a large imposing man in a red jumper swearing and threatening to assault the landlord. He was threatening to hit the landlord, and spit at him, and he was streaming expletives. We all went quiet and the men in my group were apprehensive as they said they feared if he did get violent they would be expected to step in to protect the landlord.

The landlord is a very gentle and calm man and has run the pub for years with no trouble. He called the police.

Now the man was being threatening, but there was only one of him. So I was a little surprised when eight police officers piled into the pub from a couple of vans and cars.

They escorted the man outside and we could see that he was calming down and he walked away. The next surprise was the police didn’t bother to come back into the pub to explain what action they had taken but just piled back into the van ready to drive off.

I went outside and asked what had happened. I was anticipating some reassurance that the man had left and we would be safe and they would keep an eye out. The officer closest to me was reasonably polite but the officer driving the van was just plain rude and aggressive. He told me to go home if I was worried, he threatened the landlord, he was abusive and uncivil.

I felt his behaviour mirrored that of the man in the pub. If a police officer is that rude to a sober, middle class, white, middle-aged woman, goodness only knows how he would behave with someone else.

I hope I don’t have to have any other contact with the Met police as a citizen ever again.

December 17, 2014 · Frances Crook · 6 Comments
Posted in: anti-social behaviour, Police